George Frederic Watts was a Victorian painter and sculptor who was closely associated in his later years with the Symbolism Movement. Symbolism came about in the 1880’s but by the end of the century it had almost died away having been overshadowed by the birth and rise of Modernism. The Symbolist movement was a reaction against the literal representation of objects and subjects, where instead there was an attempt to create more suggestive, metaphorical and evocative works. Symbolic artists based their ideas on literature, where poets such as Baudelaire believed that ideas and emotions could be portrayed through sound and rhythm and not just through the meaning of words. Symbolist painter styles varied greatly but common themes included the mystical and the visionary. Symbolists also explored themes of death, debauchery, perversion and eroticism. Symbolism moved away from the naturalism of the impressionists and demonstrated a preference for emotions over intellect.
George Frederic Watts was born on February 23rd 1817 in Marylebone, London and his Christian names were those of the great musician George Frederic Handel who was born on that date some 132 years earlier. His mother and father struggled financially and this was not helped by the poor health of his mother who was to die when George was very young. His father was a piano maker and took it upon himself to educate his son at home. Much emphasis was placed on a conservative Christian upbringing and a love for classical literature. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, his father’s compelling desire to force his Christian views on his son, eventually made George turn completely away from organised religions.
At the age of ten, George had some informal tuition from William Behnes, a local sculptor where he practiced drawing from the sculptures. This training proved a godsend as by the age of sixteen he was able to support himself from the sale of his portraits. In 1835, aged eighteen years of age, George Watts enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools. Although Watts never enjoyed his time at the establishment and would often fail to attend he did exhibit some of his works at the 1837 Royal Academy Exhibition. It was whilst studying art that he met and became great friends with Alexander Constantine Ionides, an art patron and collector. Ionides commissioned many paintings from Watts and became one of his earliest patrons.
By 1840 Watts had moved away from portraiture and concentrated on historical paintings. In 1843, he entered the first competition to design murals for the new Houses of Parliament. Entries were to be of a narrative genre which endorsed patriotism and thus would be appropriate to the new legislative building. His entry, Caractacus Led in Triumph through the Streets of Rome, gained him first prize in the competition and the prize money helped fund his artistic study trip to Italy where he remained for four years. During his stay in Italy he learnt the secrets of fresco painting and completed many large scale paintings depicting scenes from Romantic literature. However, he never gave up on his other artistic loves, portraiture and landscape painting.
Watts returned to London in 1847 and once again entered the Houses of Parliament competition. This was the fourth one organised by the monarch and the government. Watts won the competition with his entry Alfred Inciting the Saxons to Encounter the Danes at Sea. Watts suffered from bouts of depression and he expressed his personal struggle with the illness in a series of four paintings which evoked a social realism theme. One of these works entitled Found Drowned was my featured painting in My Daily Art Display of July 4th 2011. In 1851 he went to live with his friend Henry Thoby Prinsep and his wife Sara at Little Holland House. He lived with them for the next twenty-four years and it undoubtedly provided Watts with a secure environment for him to work and relax and provide a safe haven away from the rigours of the real world. Little Holland House was a favourite meeting place of the young Pre-Raphaelite artists and literary people like Tennyson and it gave Watts then ideal opportunity to paint portraits of the aspiring literary and artistic luminaries of the day.
In 1878 Watts took part in the 1878 Exposition Universelle in Paris and submitted nine paintings and one sculpture. He became an instantaneous celebrity on the European art scene. During the 1880’s, he produced many symbolic paintings which displayed close links to the work of his friend, the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and the other Pre-Raphaelite artists such as Edward Burne-Jones.
In 1886 at the age of 69 Watts re-married, to Mary Fraser-Tytler, a Scottish designer and potter who was some thirty three years his junior. In 1891 he bought a house in Compton, near Guilford, in Surrey and in 1904 had a gallery built nearby which became known as the Watts Gallery and which was dedicated to his work. The Watts Gallery is still a very popular venue for art lovers. George Frederic Watts died that year aged 87, shortly after the gallery opening.
Hope is looked upon as certainly the most influential, and outstanding if not most unusual of all George Frederic Watts’ paintings. This portrayal of the poignant musician has struck a chord with audiences and critics ever since it was first displayed at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1886. In 1887 at the Royal Jubilee exhibition held in Manchester the painting took pride of place in the middle of an entire wall dedicated to Watts’ work. Numerous reproductions were made of this painting and many who saw it were deeply affected by what they saw and Watts received many letters from people who were greatly moved by the emotional impact it had on them. In the painting Watts has personified Hope as a young woman seated on a globe, hunched over, appearing to be almost asleep. She wears a blindfold which symbolises her blindness and to the mental state she embodies. What was it about this work that such an effect on people? It has to be Watts’ portrayal of this hunched, isolated, blindfolded and barefoot woman who appears to be on the edge of despair. So why the title Hope? Maybe in this case it is not hope meaning one’s optimistic thoughts but more of a feeling of almost despair; a hoping against hope. As we take in the picture of the girl bent over listening to the music from her lyre we wonder why Watts has chosen the title. The bluish grey background induces a melancholy mood. One critic commented that the painting did not evoke a feeling of hope and should have been entitled Despair. Maybe that was the reason that in another version of his painting he has added a single star to the background to symbolise hope. The girl, Hope, bends her ear to catch the music from the last remaining string of her almost shattered lyre. It is the faintest of hope as symbolised in her musical instrument which now with just one string left for her to make music and once that has broken, all hope of her producing a musical sound has disappeared.
Did the painting appeal to those who had almost lost hope themselves and in some way empathised with the vulnerability of the woman in the painting? Watts had always sought, through his paintings, to communicate his message to as many people as possible. Some would criticise this aspect as being somewhat patronizing but Watts was a great master of narrative paintings and this was probably the reason why his conventional patriotic works he put forward for the Houses of Parliament were so successful. Watts was surprised by the critical acclaim and popularity of his painting and attempted to follow up his success with Hope with two other works entitled, Faith and Charity, the other two “theological virtues” but they neither received the critical acclaim that his Hope painting achieved nor were they as popular with the public.
This version of the painting can be found in the Tate Gallery, London.